Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The burden of bad ideas
So, Heather MacDonald has replied to my reply to her. Take a look and then come back.
Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”
Suppose also that, equally bizarrely, she seemed to be getting some respectful attention for these laughably ill-informed opinions. Annoyed, you pointed out to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she really ought to read some serious physics books before commenting further, and that in any case she ought to leave the hapless high school students out of it. Irate, she replies that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is really worth taking seriously, and that doing so requires you to give her some “scientific evidence” that what the high school students have to say is true. She also refuses to consider the views of any actual physicists, apparently on the theory that if their complex arguments cannot be summarized for her in the comments box of one of her blog posts, then they must not be very compelling. Then she riffs a little more on some of her pet irrelevancies. “Where, pray tell, is your scientific evidence for this cat who’s alive and dead at the same time, Mr. Physicist? Show it to us, if it’s real! And what about those little ball thingies that float on the waves? Where’s your scientific test for them? Huh? HUH?!” Finally, with a flourish, she compares quantum mechanics to belief in the efficacy of Kinoki Detox Foot Pads. “So there!”
Replace “quantum mechanics” with “religion,” “physics” with “philosophy and theology,” and “high school students” with “unsophisticated religious believers,” and this is, I submit, pretty much where I find myself with respect to MacDonald. Really, what’s the point?
But I guess I’m in a masochistic mood, so let’s waste a few more pixels, shall we?
MacDonald insinuates that in my original short email to Jonah Goldberg which he posted at The Corner, and in my brief reply to her in the comments section of her blog, I was “argu[ing] for the scientific and rational basis of religion,” and she does not find these purported arguments of mine compelling. But of course, it would be idiotic to try to argue for such a gigantic claim in either a short email to a busy NRO writer or in the comments box of some blog, and so I did not try to do so. The only point I was making is that whatever one thinks of religion, MacDonald, Kathleen Parker, et al. reveal by their writings that they are innocent of any knowledge of serious religious thought – and MacDonald keeps piling up the evidence for this claim with every comment she makes in reply to me.
Presumably MacDonald wrote her own book The Burden of Bad Ideas precisely so that she wouldn’t have to repeat herself at length every time some joker demanded of her to prove, on the spot (and indeed even in emails sent to third parties) that her views on public policy are correct. “Jeez, read the book, fella!” I imagine she would say, and rightly so. (And you should read it too, incidentally, because MacDonald, whose work I generally enjoy and profit from, is very good when she’s writing on subjects other than religion.) Similarly, if MacDonald really wants to hear my case for the rational basis of religion, she can find it in The Last Superstition. (Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas, so pick one up for Kathleen too!)
I will say this much, however. MacDonald seems to think that a rational case for the existence of God must take the form of coming up with a double-blind experiment to test claims about magic pills, or whatever the hell it is she was going on about. But the traditional arguments for God’s existence are not like that. That is to say, they aren’t quasi-scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations of this or that alleged weird phenomenon. They are instead attempts to show that perfectly ordinary phenomena, and in particular the phenomena that empirical science itself must necessarily take for granted, such as (to take just one example) the existence of any causal regularities at all, necessarily presuppose an uncaused first cause. The reasons why this is so are complicated, as are the reasons why the standard “obvious” objections to this claim are no good – that is, again, why they cannot properly be explained except at the sort of length a book provides. The point for now, in any event, is that empirical theorizing is not the only sort of rational inquiry there is. Mathematics is another. And a third is metaphysics, which is the rational investigation of those categories – such as cause, effect, form, matter, substance, attribute, essence, existence, and so forth – which empirical science cannot investigate, precisely because any empirical science must presuppose them. (Even the claim that “empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry” would itself not an empirical claim but a metaphysical one.) And this is the level at which the debate over God’s existence must be conducted – philosophy, not empirical science.
Again, though, read the book, which establishes all this at length and in detail.
That MacDonald is no philosophy whiz is in any case painfully evident from her attempted disproof of God’s existence on the basis of evil. I positively defy her to name anyone – it need not be a philosopher, just anyone at all – who has said anything to the effect that “their death [i.e. that of the miners in her example] shows God’s love for humanity, that he cares for every one of us.” True, lots of people say (quite correctly) that such tragic events are consistent with God’s love for us. But who ever made the much stronger claim that they are nothing less than “proof” of that love? No one, as far as I can tell. And yet this silly straw man attribution is essential to MacDonald’s hapless attempt at reductio ad absurdum.
Yet again, read the book, which contains a thorough debunking of the problem of evil.
Anyway, MacDonald need not count her ill-advised foray into philosophy and theology a total loss. Look at it this way: Should she ever be moved to revise The Burden of Bad Ideas she’s now got material for a new chapter, viz. an autobiographical one.