Doing it Right the “Old” Way

Do you need a Ph.D. in philosophy to be a legitimate and respectable participant in the theism/atheism debate or the science/religion debate? Of course not. But you do need to know what you are talking about. Those, however accomplished in other fields, who leap into the debate philosophically uninformed inevitably commit freshman mistakes that expose them to the scorn of sophisticated opponents. Just being a scientist, for instance, does not mean that you will make respectable arguments. Remember that Duane Gish, Henry Morris, and Hugh Ross earned legitimate degrees in scientific or technical fields. Fred Hoyle was one of the leading (if eccentric) astrophysicists of his generation, yet he is the one who came up with the kooky comparison between the origin of life and the tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. This preposterous howler has comforted generations of creationists. I even heard the late, not so great, Rev. Jerry Falwell quote it once.

So, expertise in a specialty, even a scientific specialty, does not insulate one from basic error. Those who enter into debates on philosophical topics (and the science/religion issue is a philosophical topic) from a position of philosophical ignorance are prone to glaring blunders that only obfuscate and oversimplify while exacerbating the already extreme balkanization of our intellectual culture. For instance, they tend to set up simplistic dichotomies such as “faith vs. reason.” Christian philosophers and theologians have been debating the relation of faith and reason for nearly 2000 years. Maybe they have not solved the issue, but not everything they have said has been stupid. When you tar opponents with a broad brush while gleefully knocking down straw men, the result is the intellectual equivalent of a dirty coal-fired plant that spews vast quantities of greenhouse gas into an already overheated atmosphere. Let’s be clear: Theists and atheists are never going to hold hands around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya.” Damn good thing too. Pointed disagreement is fine. I love it. But it has to be an informed clash of ideas and not an exercise in name-calling.

So, who has done it right? Have I set up too high a standard by requiring those who debate philosophical or religious issues to inform themselves? Can any one person be a scientist and also have the expertise and skill needed to debate religious or philosophical issues? Sure. T.H. Huxley did. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was one of the leading scientists and educators of his day. Known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his aggressive defense of Darwinism, he was also a public intellectual who carried on disputes on topics in philosophy and religion with learned opponents—and beat them at their own game. In all of his controversies, whether with theologians or prime ministers (Huxley and Gladstone had a number of polemical encounters), he displayed an exemplary depth of knowledge and sophistication of argument. Far from scorning or ignoring philosophy, he wrote a monograph on Hume and an essay on Descartes’s Discourse on Method. He was as comfortable discussing ancient Stoicism as he was the positivism of Auguste Comte.

Because of his success as a controversialist, Huxley was, of course, furiously abused by those whom he had bested, and was accused of being a hater of Christianity who went out of his way to attack the Bible. Huxley strenuously denied both charges, accusations which, I imagine, today’s “new” atheists would enthusiastically embrace. Huxley described his motivation as follows:

“I had set out on a journey with no other purpose than that of exploring a certain province of natural knowledge; I strayed no hair’s breadth from the course which it was my right and my duty to pursue; and yet I found that, whatever route I took, before long, I came to a tall and formidable-looking fence. Confident as I might be in the existence of an ancient and indefeasible right of way, before me stood the thorny barrier with its comminatory notice board—‘No Thoroughfare. By order. Moses.’ There seemed no way over; nor did the prospect of creeping round, as I saw some do, attract me. True, there was no longer any reason to fear the spring guns and man-traps set by former lords of the manor; but one is apt to get very dirty going on all-fours. The only alternatives were either to give up my journey—which I was not minded to do—or to break the fence down and go through it.”

This is the way to do it. If a scientist finds the pathway to knowledge blocked by creationists, “intelligent design theorists,” “climate-change skeptics,” or any other such ideologically-motivated science deniers, then push straight through them. No need to be particularly gentle about it either. Obscurantism need not and will not be tolerated, and scientists do a great public service when they debunk the doctrinally-infatuated opponents of science. But what if the scientist then trades his scalpel for a blunderbuss and declares war, not against the purveyors of particular forms of ideological idiocy, but against entire faith traditions or communities? The enemy is no longer, say, young earth creationism, but “faith” itself. Trading a narrow focus for a broad gauge poses the danger that a useful critique will be replaced with a tirade.

Well, what is wrong with a good, old-fashioned tirade? Being an inveterate curmudgeon, I’ve indulged in a few myself. They are great for letting off steam, and the blast from a blunderbuss occasionally hits a worthwhile target. I confess that Lewis Black is my favorite comedian. In irā veritas—sometimes. But shouldn’t scholars and scientists, except when just blowing off steam (preferably around friends and colleagues), leave the tirades to the professionals like Lewis Black? Aren’t we supposed to be upholding a higher standard? Isn’t our media culture presently inundated with enough bitter bloviation? Are we instead in an era deprived of angry, sweeping denunciation and with too much careful reasoning and logical analysis? I modestly suggest that we academic types, except perhaps for the occasional indulgence, leave the tirades to the professionals and in our published works stick to what we are paid to be good at—rigorous argument, logical inference, accurate analysis, and unbiased critique.