Followup: The artful dodger

In the previous post, I took Philosopher of Science Elliott Sober to task for a relatively simple question that he’s been flogging at the expense of huge amounts of oxygen and electrons – and at the same time, ripped philosophy in general. I’ll be honest and say that I would really like someone to demonstrate that philosophy has much more use than I’ve given it credit for; at the very least, it would show that a whole lot of people aren’t wasting ridiculous amounts of time with nonsense. Yet, Sober at least has been given the opportunity and has failed to rise to the challenge. At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne posed three pertinent questions directly to Sober, basically cutting to the heart of the matter to try and clarify what he saw as the flaws in Sober’s argument. Sober did indeed reply… or at least, wrote back. I think the word “reply” at least implies that the questions were actually answered, and not avoided or twisted.

So, the breakdown (yes, I’m using that in more than one meaning). Coyne’s three questions are as follows:

1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?

2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?

3. If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?

These are simple, direct, and consistent, no? They deal with factors that have immediate bearing on the lecture that Sober has given, and repeatedly defended – in fact, they address the very reason anyone would give such a lecture in the first place. Let’s see what Sober did with them:

If by “God” you mean a being who separately created species within the last 50,000 years, then I am an atheist. But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answers makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists. In this case, I feel obliged to be an agnostic. This is why I find statements like “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist” unsatisfactory; the claim is correct for some concepts of God, but not for others.

Note that, in the last sentence, Sober is dealing with another subject entirely; neither the lecture, nor the responses given by Coyne or Rosenhouse, involved this statement at all. It is worth noting that, “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist,” is not the same statement as, “there is no evidence for the existence of god.” Again, an argument from proving negatives and, bluntly, a straw man. And nothing to do whatsoever with his lecture.

Even before that however, Sober doesn’t answer the question posed to him, but wanders away into the definitions of others, admitting that the concepts of ‘god’ are too variable to provide anything of use. Which raises the question, why did he try to blame science (or even individual scientists) for their failure to consider something that he cannot even define himself? I hope I’m not being too unkind when I say that even an uneducated person is an idiot for arguing in consideration of something he doesn’t believe in and cannot define; a professor doing so is inexcusable.

On to questions 2 and 3, which for our purposes here can be combined. Sober admits that his supposition about cause can be applied throughout the sciences, not just within evolutionary biology. His excuse for spending all of his time on evolutionary biology?

The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist. They hear biologists say “mutations are unguided” and think that the theory says that God plays no role in the evolutionary process.

So, what Sober is saying here is that, because some bunch of neurotics are concerned that their personal belief system isn’t supported by biology, biologists should reword everything in the literature to express an opening that accommodates said neuroses.

Notice that there is no recognition that science is so extraordinarily useful because it emphasizes the elimination of preconceived bias. Or that scientific theories revolve around explaining what evidence we do have, not outlining the literally infinite possibilities of the evidence we do not. Not even that the pursuit of knowledge can only take place by accepting the results we get, regardless of how they make us feel. This whole situation openly demonstrates the flaws in setting emotions higher than reason, a pertinent and useful topic in philosophy, yet Sober spends his time only in perpetuating these flaws. And this is what a prestigious philosopher of science is providing?

It takes no effort to see how badly knowledge is hampered when ideology is accommodated (or forced upon, as history shows irrefutably.) It serves no purpose whatsoever to make allowances for people who fail to understand how the scientific method operates and why, especially when effort spent in promoting such understanding can actually eliminate the problem. Numerous further questions were raised by Sober’s backwards approach to biology, all of which illustrate problems solved decades to centuries ago and were directly responsible for the methodology we have now – yet Sober either remains ignorant of these, or chooses to suck up to religious whiners instead. It really doesn’t matter which.

There’s another useful thing to consider in here as well. Religion isn’t pursued because it provides answers, makes sense, or even guides us morally – it’s pursued through cultural pressures and because it’s indulgent (and, in the cases of religious leaders, because it’s a great way to make money from bullshit.) The religious problems with evolution do not stem from either evolution failing to explain some aspect of life, or from the few people who cannot reconcile the facts with their scripture; the problems stem from religious leaders actively trying to discredit it because, without “the fall” and the idea of sin, the entire structure of the abrahamic religions falls apart (and with it, the leverage religious leaders can use against the wallets of their flock.) This means that it’s not evolution that has the flaws, it’s religion. Yet evolution, in the US at least, is much more often simply ignored, considered propaganda and brainwashing – biologists aren’t heeded in the slightest among that population. Even if the efforts to find a crack into which could be stuffed Sober’s idea of “Feeblegod” reached more than .05% of evolution-deniers, this would do nothing towards a greater acceptance of science, since all it would signify is how one tactic of religious pressure actually worked; it would only lead to more efforts to discredit evolution.

Not to mention that corrupting the methods of science to gain greater acceptance of the methods of science is simply a fucked-up approach, which (again) you would think might be obvious to a philosopher of science. Unless, of course, such a degree was utterly pointless.

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