Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Carroll on NOMA Again

Sean Carroll again fails to be quite careful enough:

When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.


A few problems with this:

(1) Religious belief also often involves claims that "entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world" (as Carroll goes on to say); this is also consistent with how they have been understood in the Western world among religious believers (and part of the evidence for this is that Carroll himself has to keep dealing with people who try to point out such claims). And really, it makes quite a bit of sense, if you think about it: the label 'religion' is used in actual fact to cover a great many things. Simply arbitrarily confining the term to one of these things, as Carroll keeps trying to do, is as utterly an unreasonable thing as redefining the term to mean something it usually doesn't, which he keeps trying to claim his opponents are doing. As far as I can see he has never bothered to present any sort of evidence for the claim that they are doing this, rather than simply focusing on different claims that also are consistent with the way people have used the term (as shown by certain eighteenth century freethinkers, and Kantians and Feuerbachians and Edwin Abbott Abbott and the Modernists &c. &c.)

(2) While one might be able to identify, at a very abstract level, one meaning of the term 'God' through Western history, there is certainly no such stable meaning through history for the term 'religion'. This is a demonstrable fact. When the ancients and medievals talked about religio, they were talking about something that in itself involved no claims at all. It was a virtue, a practical disposition, closely related to justice in that it was the attempt to render to others what it was due, in which the 'others' were not (as with ordinary justice) human beings but higher powers. It inevitably began to include the sorts of practices that typically follow from this disposition; in the early modern period, it finally began to include claims, namely, the very basic claims presupposed by these practices -- that God exists, that virtue and vice are demanded of us and rewarded and punished, etc. This sense of the term 'religion' is still sharply contrasted with other things that Carroll would not doubt call 'religious'. For example, two such contrasting notions that became very popular were supersition and enthusiasm. However, because both of these mimicked what fell under the label 'religion', they inevitably were called 'false religion', as being things that were not religion but looked like it if you weren't careful. And because they were religious in the sense of being religion-like, they eventually began falling under the term, and 'religion' came to be used in an extra-ethical sense, but not only in an extra-ethical sense. And it only gets more complicated from there: first anthropology then sociology rework the term for their own particular uses and these reworked senses recycle back to become part of the colloquial sense of the term, without the older senses falling out of use. What is more, I've only picked a few of the lines of complication by which baggage was added to this one term; the actual history is vastly more complicated. Carroll's sense of the term is not consistent with all of these (and I can provide more exact references if anyone needs them, although they aren't all that difficult to find on one's own). No sense of the term could be. It's not as if this is the sort of thing about which we have no evidence but dictionaries; there is actual historical evidence about the use of terms like 'religion' against which Carroll's claim can be measured. And it doesn't measure up well against the actual evidence. Nor is this evidence all that difficult to find, although admittedly it would take some reading; has Carroll even bothered to look? Or is he just assuming it must be right because that's the way it seems on first impression? I have to say, at present I see no reason to think otherwise. I've studied the term, at least parts of its history; if there's a unified meaning, it eludes me. Perhaps Carroll can teach me something by actually presenting his evidence.

(3) Notice the breathtaking lack of qualification in Carroll's last two sentences:

It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.


Notice how many factual religious claims this would leave open yet, which Carroll completely ignores. A number of people have held as part of their religious beliefs the view that blacks as well as whites must be human in the same fundamental way -- not just should be treated as human, but actually were human. Is Carroll going to claim that science has judged this view, that blacks are as human as whites, and found it wanting? I hope not. We see here exactly the same sloppiness we saw in the previous post on the subject: a claim about some kinds of religious beliefs glides into an unqualified claim about religious beliefs. Setting aside the means and procedures whereby science would decide such matters, the mere fact that some claims that are in some perfectly ordinary sense religious are "found wanting" tells us nothing about the matter in general. Some common sense claims have been "found wanting" by scientific inquiry; that is not an argument for any general incompatibility between science and common sense. Some political claims (some very, very common ones, in fact) have been "found wanting" by scientific inquiry; that is not an argument for an incompatibility between politics and science on anything other than those very particular points. For that matter, some perfectly scientific claims have, in the self-correcting course of scientific inquiry, been "found wanting"; it would be absurd to argue that this shows that science inherently contradicts itself. In the real world everyone occasionally makes claims that are "found wanting" by science, or mathematics, or history. This tells us nothing more than that people have to do a bit more work to shake out the bugs in their view of the world. It's clear enough from where Carroll will take this in the rest of the post that he is making a confusion similar to the confusion about NOMA I pointed out before: he will take a claim consistent with NOMA and inflate it where convenient so that it contradicts NOMA, then deflate it back down to the weaker, more reasonable claim where that's more convenient.

And that's not even getting into the really controversial claims of the post, or for that matter anything beyond the first paragraph, despite the fact that there are a few problems with where his argument goes later. As far as I can see, all we have in this first paragraph is an attempt to create a refutation of NOMA by fiat; the only part of it that he even attempts to explain or defend elsewhere is the "found wanting" clause.

I have to say, I am extremely disappointed. Carroll is usually more thoughtful and careful than others who talk about this subject, but this is just extraordinarily sloppy. If this is really the best Carroll can do, then the fact that Carroll is so much better on this subject than most of the other people in the disucssion shows you just how many badly thought-out things have been flying around in this discussion under the name of reasoning. In a sense I have no dog in the race; I honestly don't care whether science organizations are accommodationist or non-accommodationist, and I don't really care, either, whether there are people who think "science" in some sense of the term conflicts with "religion" in some sense of the term, or not. For that matter, in ultimate terms I don't care whether our entire educational system becomes actively atheistic. Christians have survived being educated in pagan educational systems, we can survive being educated in atheistic ones, and in both cases the same principle remains stable, that as Christians all truth anywhere is our birthright, and that it matters not the least whether the truth is from the mouth of our Lord or from the mouth of Balaam's ass or from any other mouth. And, as I've said, I think NOMA false, although not for most of the arguments thrown at it recently, which have varied from incoherent to question-begging. But, having watched this discussion for some time, I find it extraordinarily depressing that so few people in this discussion hold themselves to any serious rational standards. Lewis once warned of the dangers of educating Men without Chests; sometimes exasperation makes me think we have one-upped his nightmare scenario with Men without Heads, and reading the arguments on this subject has been one of those times. Unlike a lot of people, I think Carroll can do better than he does here; but he will actually have to exert some effort.

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